Organizational DNA

Change is inevitable. Adaptation to change is not. Most often, humans have the choice to adapt or resist. For those choosing to welcome change, how and when they act has a lot to do with their success rate. In order to increase their odds of success, transformation leaders should approach change management as humbly as possible, as early as possible, and as often as possible. And above all, they should never underestimate the importance of organizational culture and its effects on the change efforts.


The Problem: Often, strategic changes are opposed by underlying cultural currents used to regulate a group’s activities in normal times. We are not only living in an organizational culture, but also in local, regional, individual cultures that play a huge role in our ability to change the order of things. These cultures have subtle inertias that serve a critical function – to produce constancy and continuity. Paradoxically, the purpose of cultural inertia is to enable a group to survive amidst external pressures. And in most cases it serves this purpose well. In a sense, culture can be compared to antibodies. However, much like in the human body, cultural antibodies can sometimes fight the introduction of helpful additions just as vigorously as they fight harmful ones.


The Orthodox Options: When leading change, we must be cognizant of these preservation forces, and respect their original purpose and function. This attitude is especially critical when considering methods to introduce changes. To follow the slimily of the human body, an intrusive disease such as cancer can be treated in several ways. Sometimes, the patient needs surgery. In an organization, this can be translated in terms of the removal of an individual or unit. The patient may need chemotherapy. From an organizational perspective, changes in various operational procedures, recruitment, retention, metrics etc. can meet this comparison. Both surgery and chemo are often essential to survival. However, they also run the risk of destroying the host while treating the problem. The business world as well as government has plenty of experience with damage from failed transformation efforts are available.


An Unconventional Solution: Much like in medical procedures, organizational change should be accompanied by a careful study of the magnitude of change needed, and the treatment options that are least invasive. In medical forums, less invasive treatments can be delivered through gene therapy. DNA, (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Gene therapy is the use of DNA as a pharmaceutical agent to treat disease. It derives its name from the idea that DNA can be used to supplement or alter genes within an individual’s cells as a therapy to treat disease. DNA can replicate itself organically and introduce changes in a less invasive way. Translating this concept in management terms, “organizational DNA therapy” would identify the essential items that form the organizational culture and change them in order to deliver gradual cultural change.


A key step in this process is to actually identify the critical characteristics of organizational DNA. Combining research from several authors (see references) reveals a common thread for organizational DNA: Value – Decision – Consequence -Communication


Value Definition: What is the purpose of the organization? How does it produce value? How does it measure value creation? What structure supports this value? What is the current structure? What must structurally change to support value creation? What does not support the value stream (i.e. .could be cut)?


Decisions Process: How are decisions made and under what circumstances? What measurements support decision making? When is the power shifted and to whom? How is work performed? Who can change processes and based on what parameters?


Consequence: What motivates desired outcomes? What is the balance between investment and affordability? How do we involve individuals and teams? How are wins celebrated? How are failures dealt with? How is learning rewarded?


Communication: How are the vision, mission, and target goals communicated? What metrics are used to measure performance? What activities support coordination and situational awareness? What feedback loops inform leadership as to specific performance data? How are lessons learned and processes changed when needed? What constitutes success? What constitutes failure?


Defining these four pillars in the context of the respective organization can reveal the basic elements that determine culture, outcomes, and ultimately success or failure.


The Caveat: Using another simile, the four parameters outlined above can be thought of as structural bricks. As when building or repairing with bricks, changes in one or more of the four outlined domains requires patient persistence. Time and careful observation are important caveats that delineate whether such endeavors or more radical options should be considered. Some analytic fluency is also a must.


One can begin identifying the basic DNA of an organization within the context problem solving. Symptoms at hand can be traced to one or several of the four root elements: value, decision process, consequences and communication style. Applying investigative methods as simple as the 5-Why’s (ask why around 5 time when investigating a problem), leaders can unveil the opportunity to modify basic processes in order to organically improve results.


Defining and using the organizational DNA can be a powerful tool not only in the transformation effort, but in basic understanding of the organization as a whole. However, DNA manipulations take time. This is good and bad. Time is usually a precious commodity in a crisis. On the other hand, defining organizational DNA encourages learning, deep introspection and understanding of empirical evidence. Thus DNA therapy is certainly not appropriate for all occasions. Yet when included in the leadership’s toolkit, it’s application can also stimulate a careful, measurable, long term perspective of change from the top echelons of the organization. This outcome may be its greatest benefit.



Gary L. Neilson, Bruce A. Pasternak, Decio Mendes; “The Four Bases of Organizational DNA”, Strategy&Business Article, Winter, 2003


Jeffrey Liker, “The Toyota Way”, 2004


James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, “Lean Thinking”, 2nd Ed, 2003


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